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Wickham: U.S. diplomacy pays off on racism conference

Barack Obama has dodged a foreign policy train wreck.

Just when it seemed his threatened refusal to send an American delegation to a United Nations conference on racism would rupture into a nasty dispute between two of his core support groups, the president got a big breakthrough.

Conference organizers announced changes to a controversial draft declaration.

The document contained language that was harshly critical of Israel and restricted freedom of speech, U.S. officials said. Unless the objectionable language was removed, the Obama administration said last month, this country would not send an official delegation to the World Summit Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Other Related Intolerance.

That position pleased Jewish activists who had urged the administration to boycott the meeting if the anti-Israeli wording remained in the document.

But it angered black activists who are still smarting over the Bush administration’s decision to pull out of the 2001 racism conference over a similar dispute.

While Jewish activists have publicly pressured the Obama administration to not attend the meeting, some of the president’s black supporters privately complained that he should not allow the dispute to keep the United States from taking part in a worldwide conference where racial discrimination should be the main focus.

They griped that while Obama sought the presidency as the candidate of change, his position on the racism conference differed little from that of his predecessor.

The black activists also argued that although the president campaigned on a promise to talk to this nation’s enemies without preconditions, he’d made this nation’s participation in the racism conference dependent on the willingness of organizers to meet his precondition.

With the racism conference scheduled to begin next month in Geneva, some black activists considered going public with their concerns. That would have been a political nightmare for Obama, who got 71 percent of the Jewish vote and was backed by 95 percent of blacks who went to the polls in the Nov. 4 election.

But a disastrous public fight was avoided when the Obama administration’s quiet diplomatic efforts paid off.

“We have repeatedly shared with a wide range of countries our hopes for a document that might yet emerge that treats the issues of racism and discrimination, which we care deeply about, in a serious and constructive manner and doesn’t get sidetracked with hostile criticism of any individual country or conflict,” UN Ambassador Susan Rice told me a day before changes in the racism conference’s draft document were announced.

Rice said she had talked regularly with the UN secretary general and the body’s High Commissioner for Human Rights in an effort to get the changes made so the United States can take part in the racism conference.

And while Rice said she “did not want to overstate” her role in the efforts to end the spat over the document’s language, she said the Obama administration reached out to a wide group of nations to garner support for its position – a tactic that obviously paid off.

Canada, Israel and Italy had announced that they would not take part in the conference — and the 27-member European Union recently threatened to boycott the meeting.

Adoption of the new language, which makes no mention of Israel, seems to have paved the way for the United States to now send an official delegation to the racism conference. This will forestall an ugly public fight between black and Jewish activists — a battle that could have been very costly for Obama.

Instead, his administration can now reap the benefits of a double victory, one that should satisfy the concerns of both blacks and Jews — and keeps the core of his political support intact.

DeWayne Wickham is a Maryland-based columnist who wriites for USA TODAY. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com.

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